From Socialist Voice, May 2011


Outside the law

Outside the Law (2010), directed by Rachid Bouchareb

Rachid Bouchareb’s second film in his planned trilogy about the Algerian struggle against colonial France, now showing in the Irish Film Centre in Eustace Street, Dublin, deals with the war of independence using three of the leading actors from Indigènes: Sami Bouajila, Roschdy Zem, and Jamel Debbouze (known to Irish audiences for his comic role in the popular film Amélie).
     The three give strong performances as brothers whose fraternal bonds are stretched to breaking point by differences of opinion regarding the armed struggle, in which they become embroiled.
     Bouchareb’s first film, Indigènes (called Days of Glory in English), was a Second World War film with a difference. It portrayed the contribution of North African combatants who joined up in huge numbers to fight for France. There was a scandal that surviving veterans had their pensions stopped by the French government after their countries had won independence. In the aftermath of Bouchareb’s film the veterans’ pensions were restored.
     He envisages that his third film in the trilogy will deal with the lives of Algerian immigrants living in France between 1962 (the year that Algeria won its independence) and 2010.
     Not surprisingly, his latest film has evoked a curious range of responses among critics and reviewers, which probably reveal the political views held by these “cultural police.” Many describe the Algerians as “Arabs,” which arguably is akin to describing the Irish as Indians, both countries having adopted as a lingua franca the language of their colonisers.
     It’s somewhat ironic to hear the panel of a BBC arts programme discussing the massacre of unarmed civilians in Setif without any allusion to Derry, especially in the light of the recent Saville Inquiry and subsequent apology by the British Prime Minister.
     On the other hand, there is no such reluctance to condemn the violence employed by the Algerian activists and comparing them to present-day “men of violence.” As Brendan Behan said, “the terrorist is the one with the small bomb.”
     In fact the film depicts the true emotional cost of violence very effectively through a well-written script and acting of the highest calibre. As one of the brothers moves further up the chain of command in the movement he becomes polarised as the convictions he has held for so long are turned upside down.
     The inner turmoil is evident, and we see the same agony in another brother, who breaks down as he pours out his grief to his dying mother. The one who is most skilled at killing is the one most opposed to it.
     Almost every reviewer drew comparisons with the Italian director Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers, while it might have been more interesting to look at films Bouchareb has cited as his influences. Top of his list was the celluloid version of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940); Ken Loach’s The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006) was another. He wanted to create a big Western-style film, and indeed the pace is gripping, with wonderful characters we care about. The screen presence of his main actors is evocative of the greats, like Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Lee Marvin, et al.
     There are many memorable scenes, none more so than the opening scene of a family dispossessed of their land by a French colonist. The helpless rage and grief of the father is palpable as he is made powerless, landless and poor in one afternoon, with no option but to bring his family as migrants to the city.
     There are not many roles for women in this film, but neither are there the usual token love interests, so typical in Hollywood blockbusters and French film noir. The three main women play their roles with a stark realism, and the scenes featuring the mother are among the strongest, particularly where she visits the son in prison.
     The performances of the actors gel in an extraordinary way, and while we usually reserve the term “chemistry” for the lovers in a film, it is true to say there is a real chemistry between all the cast of Outside the Law.
     As Bouchareb comments in one of his interviews, “the only justice is outside the law,” and this film, while providing top-class entertainment, touches on the question at the core of every struggle: “Does the end justify the means?” In the light of present-day events, it has never been more important to clarify what we mean by a “just war.”
     In an age of ever more sophisticated weaponry (drones, cluster bombs, depleted uranium) and ever-changing rules of engagement (when is it appropriate to operate a no-fly zone, or impose sanctions, or to send in the cavalry?), and with all of us in Ireland paying for the US troops landing in Shannon, the questions raised in Bouchareb’s film have never been more pertinent.
     Don’t miss it!

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